Justified Killing

One of the most basic – if not The Most Basic – rules of war is “do not kill civilians”. In the language of just war theory, this is referred to as The Principle of Discrimination; the principle is codified in the Geneva Conventions and forms the first rule of Customary International Humanitarian Law.

Despite its apparent simplicity, it doesn’t take much reading to realise how complicated discrimination actually is. Who counts as a civilian? How can you tell? Why does it matter? What about if they’re living in Dresden? Can a civilian kill a Nazi? It is like a large and tangled knot, right in the middle of the fabric of just war theory – and for my thesis, I have grabbed hold of one tiny thread leading into this knot.

This thread is unlike a lot of the other threads in that it leads to social psychology, moral psychology, and moral judgments made by regular people (okay, mostly MTurkers) in response to various scenarios I throw their way. The good news is that at least at a very simplified level – contrasting “civilians” to “soldiers” with no further complications of those categories – people do make moral judgments that align with the principle of discrimination. They think it’s relatively permissible for a soldier to kill a soldier. Civilians are not permitted to kill civilians, even if they are from enemy countries. Soldiers are also not permitted to kill civilians (unsurprisingly), but nor do people seem to think it’s okay for a civilian to kill an enemy soldier. That part seems weirder to me, and I don’t know what to make of it yet (if anything).

So that’s the bad news – I’ve been writing up this study (/chapter of my thesis) today, and there are still things I’m quite confused about.

The tangential news is that while writing, I was reminded of this study, called The Neural Correlates of Justified Killing. “Justified” in this context means killing a soldier in war (rather than a civilian in the same context), and the results show that “the neural mechanisms typically implicated with harming others, such as the OFC, become less active when the violence against a particular group is seen as justified.” Nice to know that the brain cares about discrimination too, don’t you think?

And a side note: I first met Pascal, author of the linked paper, at SASP conference in 2014, in Canberra. Now he is working at Monash, and if you’re interested in neuro-moral-psych, I recommend checking out his work!

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